Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Tanner Redux 

Fans of the Robert Altman/Garry Trudeau series Tanner '88 will be pleased to know that the Sundance Channel has commissioned a four-part sequel, Tanner on Tanner, to be aired every Tuesday in October. The focus of the new series is not the failed presidential candidate (Michael Murphy), who has retired from politics to teach, but his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon), who is now a left-wing documentarian:
"Our whole comment is not as much about politics as about this glut of documentary filmmakers right now," Altman offers. "We disguised our attack—people thought we were going one place but we were actually going another!" In Tanner on Tanner, aspiring documentarians swarm all over the place. There's even a student filmmaker dogging Alex's every step, making a movie about the making of My Candidate. "Everybody's a filmmaker—that's what our film's about!" Altman crows. "Pick up a camera and you're a filmmaker!"

Altman says one of his favorite scenes in Tanner on Tanner takes place during the Democratic convention: Alex Tanner goes to interview Ron Reagan Jr. and runs into Alexandra Kerry, who just so happens to be making a documentary about her dad's campaign. For real. Cynthia Nixon sees this collision of Alexes as "the centerpiece" of the series. "It's like the ultimate meeting of reality and fiction," she says, a few days after winning the Emmy for her role as Miranda on Sex and the City (and a few days before the tabloids outed her). When asked if she offered Alex Kerry any advice based on her experience as a (fictional) candidate's daughter, Nixon laughs. "Well, as Ron Reagan Jr. tells me in the episode, 'Of course, you don't really know what it's like—your dad lost.' "

If there's a critique being mounted by Tanner on Tanner—and in typical Altman style, it is understated to the point of near obscurity, engulfed in a polyphonic spree of overlapping conversations and intersecting tangents—maybe it's the idea of the documentary craze as surrogate for activism and struggle: a sublimated or sidetracked expression of idealism in a reactionary time. If radicals can't actually achieve change in any meaningful way, what's left for them to do with their good intentions? Well, you can make a documentary. Or worse, you can go see a doc that'll confirm your own opinions and sense of being sane in a world gone crazy—hence the blockbuster box office numbers for Fahrenheit 9/11. [We should also perhaps mention, in our best Ed Grimley voice, that blogging can be quite therapeutic -- S.]

At a dire moment like this one, documentary filmmaking seems like a soft target, and Altman's assault on Alex, the "liberal do-gooder," could be seen as an odd intervention at a time when there's no shortage of liberal-bashing. Still, Tanner on Tanner gives Alex and her fellow Dems plenty of chances to unleash their rage on Dubya. "When you look at the insanity in Iraq right now . . . that's when you realize the extraordinary amount of harm that a single person sitting in the Oval Office can inflict on the world," Alex tells her own camera. "OK, so George Bush is not getting semen stains on the carpet, but you're telling me he's brought honor to his office?" In his entertaining and deliberately unfocused way, Altman once again uses a jumble of fiction and fact to evoke the American malaise.
A strong contender for the most excruciating scene in the miniseries, according to Village Voice writer Joy Press, is the one in which "Alex strains to explain her documentary at an indie film festival; you see the horror on her flushing face as patron saint of indie filmmakers Robert Redford critiques her self-indulgent effort." (On the Sundance Channel?! We wonder how much Altman & co. pulled down for the product placement.)

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